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The Brotherhood of Milk: True Happiness According To Ibn 'Arabi

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Editor's Note: This author will be speaking at the Ibn 'Arabi & Rumi conference, Nov. 4 -5 in New York City.

"How many there are who walk upon the earth, and the earth curses them! How many there are who prostrate themselves upon her, and she rejects them! How many there are who invoke God, yet their words go no further than their lips, their thoughts no further than their mind. These people act for the sake of others, yet calculate what they themselves will get out of it. How many beloved friends of God are to be found in synagogues and churches! How many hated enemies of God are to be found doing their prayers and in mosques!"

Ibn 'Arabi (1165-1240), unquestionably one of the most profound and remarkable figures in the history of world spirituality, was unafraid of exposing hypocrisy and crossing traditional boundaries. His passion for what it means to be a "friend of God" is graphically expressed in his account of meeting Abraham in the seventh heaven in a spiritual ascension. In his monumental Futuhat al-Makkiyya,[1] Ibn 'Arabi describes the ascension in terms which are at once wryly amusing and deadly serious. We are presented with two kinds of travellers, both of whom are searching for knowledge of Truth: the one follows a prophet or messenger, responding to revelation with acceptance, and committing themselves heart and soul to Truth; the other is a speculative thinker, who takes reason as his yardstick and wants "to discover the path to knowledge of God by myself." While the speculative thinker thinks he needs to seek knowledge, using all the powers at his disposal, the follower strives only to make himself nothing before the Truth, like an empty vessel, empty of selfish individuality, ready to receive whatever is deposited in him, without laying claim to owning it. There are interesting comparisons to be made here with the modern divide between left and right brain typologies.

Not only are their methods different, says Ibn 'Arabi, but the fruits of their investigations are also different: "everything the speculative thinker acquires, the follower also acquires, but not vice versa." This is due to that special and intimate relationship to the Divine that each creature possesses, which Ibn 'Arabi calls the 'private face.' It is through this private face that he receives a knowledge which the speculative thinker cannot understand.

The two travel together on their journey of ascension, the follower carried through Divine Grace and the speculative thinker riding upon the steed of reflective thinking. They pass through the seven heavens, each of which has two aspects: a planet and a prophet who rules it -- for example, the second heaven of Mercury and Jesus, or the third heaven of Venus and Joseph. At each level the follower is treated with great honour by the prophet of that heaven and is initiated into secrets and mysteries, while the poor speculative thinker is left to his own devices and can only converse with the planet. In many cases even the planet abandons him, saying it is in the service of the prophet and has to attend to his guest. It is small wonder that the speculative thinker gets more and more depressed as the journey goes on.

By the time they reach the seventh heaven, where Abraham resides, the situation has become critical: the speculative thinker is installed "in a dark, deserted and desolate house," that grimly Saturnine mirror which is none other than the house of his own soul. That it appears dark and empty shows the ultimate fruitlessness of unaided reason, echoed in the Biblical cry of "vanity of vanities; all is vanity."[2] Here at the end of it all, there is no joy, no life.

In contrast, the follower is warmly welcomed by Abraham, who is resting his back against the 'Visited House' (al-bayt al-ma'mur). Just as the earthly Ka'ba (which was established by Abraham according to tradition) is surrounded by pilgrims in prayer, so this heavenly archetype (which is a cipher for the perfect human heart) is frequented by angelic presences, constantly coming and going, never returning, always fresh. The Abrahamic injunction to the follower is:

"Make your heart like this Visited House, by being present with God in every state. Know that of all that you see, nothing contains the Real God except the heart of the believer, and that is you!"

At this point in the story, the speculative thinker realises that he doesn't have a heart like his fellow-traveller -- he is missing out, his self-reality is a place of restriction precisely because his viewpoint is narrowly self-centred, and he tries to get closer to Abraham. Here an intriguing conversation takes place:

Abraham then asks the follower: "Who is this stranger with you?", and the follower replies: "He is my brother."
"Your milk-brother or your blood-brother?" Abraham asks.
"My water-brother", the follower replies.
"You are right," Abraham says, "that is why I do not recognise him. Do not keep company with anyone except your milk-brother, just I am your milk-father. The Presence of Infinite Beatitude only admits milk-brothers, milk-fathers and milk-mothers, for these are suitable in the sight of God. Do you not see that knowledge manifests as milk in the Presence of Imagination, and this is because of the suckling relationship?"

After this while the follower is invited into the Visited House and travels on until he reaches the Divine mystery, the poor speculative thinker is left to go back to the beginning on his own. In other words, there is no room at the level of the heart (represented by Abraham) for any clinging to self and all our intellectual edifices bar us from entering into true knowledge.

The three kinds of brotherhood (which he specifies includes both human genders) delineated by Ibn 'Arabi offer a profound picture of what it means to be human:

  • Blood-brothers, the family of consanguinity, our fleshly and genetic inheritance with all its ties of close kinship; it is an exclusively tribal brotherhood, restricted to the physical family we belong to.
  • Water-brothers, which refers here to the wider community of humankind, who share the water of life in this world, just as all things, including Adam and his children, are born of water. We are all in the image of human beings, but although apparently unlimited, this form of brotherhood and fraternit├ę is equally exclusive, where because of our attitudes, beliefs and culture we create huge divisions and polarisations (happy/blessed or unhappy/damned, rich or poor, believer or disbeliever).
  • Milk-brothers, suckled in infancy from the same source, so close in kinship that marriage between milk-relatives is expressly forbidden in many cultures. Here we are lovingly nourished by milk, which Ibn 'Arabi explains as the image of knowledge. There is no limit imposed, except in terms of the quantity of milk drunk.

According to Ibn 'Arabi, this is the only kind of brotherhood which Abraham recognises: a brotherhood of those who share in the knowledge of the Divine Unity, the fundamental origin of all things. Although intrinsically all human beings have the capacity for such knowledge, only some realise this, by concentrating on the most profound aspect of the self, the heart, rather than the head or the body. We can compare these levels to the three aspects of the human being: blood/body, water/soul, milk/spirit. If there are differences between us at the first two levels, the only distinction at the highest level is in how much milk we have drunk.

In our modern world where conflicts arise on the basis of ethnicity, where the politics of identity makes people increasingly strident in their self-definition, the idea of a milk-brotherhood, a brotherhood based on knowledge of Being, becomes highly topical. This "Milky Way" excludes no-one: it is open to all. It is self-selecting, in the sense that you can opt in or out. It celebrates the best aspects of being human. But knowledge here is not restricted to a simple attestation of Divine Unity and Ineffability. This is a realisation of the heart, a direct experiential knowledge gained through suckling at the breast of Love.

[1] Chapter 167, which dedicated to the spiritual knowledge of the alchemy of true happiness -- Fut.II.270ff.
[2] Ecclesiastes i 2

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